It is often said that coaches think differently to most. That they have a knack for thinking outside the square when others cannot, especially under pressure. It is a rare quality, but sometimes even the best tacticians need to admit to mistakes.
While the "swing man" used to be rare in football – at least the excellent ones – the modern player is extremely adaptable and tends to be able to play in most positions.
It seems that more and more players are being used at both ends of the ground, but are their clubs getting the best out of them by doing so?
The recent debate about Jake Carlisle got me thinking about some of the past greats who started their careers at one end of the ground, but eventually flourished at the other.
Alastair Lynch forged his career as a backman at Fitzroy, before becoming a gun full forward at Brisbane.
Fraser Gehrig was also playing at centre half-forward for West Coast before his move to St Kilda. The Saints persisted with him in defence before finally giving him another crack in front of the sticks where he came into his own.
Bulldogs champion Chris Grant started up forward for the Bulldogs, but he too was moved into defence before switching back into attack and famously polling the most votes in the 1997 Brownlow, only to miss out on the medal because he’d been suspended.
New Hall of Fame inductee Anthony Koutoufides also played as a "swing man" before he found his home in the midfield.
Of the current crop, Ben Reid has proven his worth at both ends of the ground for the Magpies. After playing most of his career in defence, Bucks experimented with him up forward last season and he was a revelation.
For the Bombers, Michael Hurley has become a much more consistent footballer in defence and is now getting uncontested possessions as well as winning his own ball.
That doesn’t mean they are genuine "swing men", rather they may just be finding their niche. I’d rate Port’s Justin Westhoff and Geelong’s Harry Taylor as the AFL’s best in this role.
They’re footballers who are adept at both ends of the ground and seem to be able to make the transition with ease. It doesn’t take them a quarter of football to settle in. They adjust their game accordingly and immediately go about their business, either repelling the opposition or providing potency in attack. Tonight, Taylor will either line up on Lachie Henderson or Jarrad Waite, who have both also shown an ability to play at both ends of the ground. Perhaps Waite’s form is reflective of Carlton’s. He certainly hasn’t been at his best this season. Giving him time down back might be a good option to get him back in form. It’s a move that can often benefit out-of-sorts forwards.
In my opinion, playing forward is a much more difficult proposition than playing in defence, especially for key position players.
Where team structures rely heavily on the ability of forwards to lead, mark, make room and coordinate the players around them, key-position backmen usually have just one job – to beat their man.
If defenders can get their own ball then that’s a bonus, but I bet most coaches would be more than satisfied if their defenders just did that one thing.
For that reason, I understand Jake Carlisle preferring back to forward. Forward may not be for him. Mark Thompson may see it differently for the sake of balancing his team, but at what stage do you ask yourself whether you are getting enough out of your players. After being played up forward all year, Carlisle – through Hurley’s absence – got his chance to return to defence last week and he looked like a different player, playing with a surety and confidence.
Not only did he perform well with the very basics – beating his man – but he just seemed more comfortable at reading the play in front of him. It helped him do what is so valuable in today’s game, and that’s to take intercept marks.
Persisting with him as a forward may eventually reap rewards for Essendon, but how long do you give him? There’s no doubt the modern game lends itself to players being rotated and able to play in multiple positions. I’ll be among those eager to see how the Bombers use Carlisle this weekend and likewise, Waite and Taylor tonight.